David Cameron has announced that the Conservatives will be sending out 3 million copies of their “Contract with the voters” as part of their final push for Downing Street. Claiming to give sixteen cast-iron guarantees to the voters, the document itself threatens to be as meaningless as Labour’s 1997 pledge card, or Cameron’s long-forgotten promise to introduce fixed-term parliaments.
Whether or not you believe this document will be worth the paper it’s written on, it is perhaps its distribution which best reveals the cynicism behind the Tory campaign. Cameron’s Contract will only be sent to targeted voters in key Tory/Labour marginals. This highlights one of the major flaws of Britain’s archaic voting system. To win enough seats in parliament, political parties don’t need to conduct a conversation with all parts of the country, just the few areas where seats might change hands. The rest of us will not be charmed and schmoozed by Lord Ashcroft’s marginal speed-dating operation as, presumably, the Tories don’t think we can make a difference to the outcome of the election.
To be fair, it’s not just the Tories who employ this method of campaigning. Labour have aggressively targeted the seats they have needed to win over the years, claiming landslide victories in the process. UKIP are concentrating most of their efforts on Nigel Farage’s unlikely attempt to unseat John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons. Even the Lib Dems, champions of electoral reform, have been forced down the ‘target seat’ route in order to build a stronger voice in parliament.
The key word there is ‘forced’. The British electoral system causes the vast majority of voters to be completely ignored while the select few are bombarded with leaflets, posterboards and telephone canvassers. The parties have to do this, or they lose. In the 1983 General Election the Labour Party vote share slumped to 27.6% but they won 209 seats in the House of Commons. By contrast the Liberal/SDP Alliance were not far behind with 25.4% of the vote, yet they won only 23 seats. Ever since then the third party have targeted their efforts more effectively and won more seats as a result.
But is this really democracy? Shouldn’t the Tories be sending this contract to everyone (after all, it’s not as if the cost is an issue for them)? Shouldn’t all politicians be conducting a conversation with the electorate as a whole? If you want to vote Labour in Cornwall (or Tory in Glasgow) shouldn’t you be allowed to without fear of wasting your vote? Isn’t it time we ended the anti-democratic institution of the safe seat?
You can guarantee that one item in particular will be missing from Cameron’s Contract: electoral reform. The discredited First Past The Post system creates artificial debates, distorts the results and makes people vote against the parties they dislike instead of for the parties they support. But, given the choice, the Tories won’t change this undemocratic system for the simple reason that it suits them too well.
It’s eighteen years since the Tories last polled more than 40% of the vote, and there’s no sign of that changing on Thursday. The Conservative fear is that if the voting system is reformed they will never have power again. This shows their deeply held lack of willingness to change, despite all the noises made by David Cameron. Proportional Representation wouldn’t exclude the Tories from government, but it would make them seek common ground with other politicians, other parties and – crucially – the electorate, regardless of where they live.
If the Tories can’t even consider this first, most basic step towards real change, is their contract worth the paper it’s written on?